Summary: In the first century idols were a prevalent and ordinary part of society, and they were a spiritual distraction for Christians. Today we need to be just as much on our guard against the idols of this age.
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“Keep Yourself From Idols”
Read 1 John 5:13-21
“Keep yourselves from idols.”
What a random thing to say as the very last sentence of the letter.
Paul never ends his letters that way – he usually says something like “Greet these people in your church … grace and peace”.
Hebrews ends the same way and so does Peter and Jude. Even 2 and 3 John have an ending like that.
When compared with other Scripture letters it feels like John has tacked on a random comment. “Keep yourselves from idols.”
Well … it feels random to us.
But it is not random to the original readers. In fact, this sentence is very important in the teaching of the overall letter.
To see why let’s paint a bit of an historical picture.
You could be living in Rome, or one of the bigger important towns like Corinth, or Thessalonica, or Ephesus. Or you could be living in a provincial town in the area of Bithynia. You could even be in Judea in one of the Roman towns there. The historical picture applies to all of these places as we think about your typical Roman citizen and your typical Roman town in the in the first century in all corners of the Roman Empire..
When you wake up in the morning you would go into the main room of the house and built into that room would be an altar – your home had it’s own place of worship. At this altar you would pray to multiple numbers of “gods” which were represented by carved figurines. If you were rich enough you would have multiple numbers of figurines which would be set in their own special shelf in the wall. Some of these were commissioned from artists who charged a small fortune. When you had visitors over you would invite them to use your alter and they would make sacrifices there, sacrifices of food.
These were the idols in your home.
When you stepped out of your home and went to the town centre … again even in the smallest towns … in the town centre would be another altar with a figurine. This would be a figurine of Caesar … the Emperor. For over a century now a string of Roman Emperors had called themselves the “son of god” or “living deity”. The altar in the centre of town was there so you could worship and give honour to Caesar.
These were the idols in your government structures and city.
When you went to the gymnasium for training and exercise – they had an altar. If you attended a play at the theatre – there was an altar. The people from whom you brought your vegetables and meat – there was an altar. If you were part of a guild … which is kind of like a union … the metal workers guild, the fish-sellers guild, agriculture guild … these guilds were dedicated to different gods and – you guess it – they had their guild altars. All these places had the opportunity for you to offer a sacrifice, or worship and pray, or give a gift to these “god” figurines.
These were the idols of daily life.
What this historical picture shows us is that idols were present in every aspect of life. And it was not a small command to call people to guard against idolatry. Standing against idols had significant social ramifications. We can see this for ourselves by reading Acts19 about a situation that took place in Ephesus.
24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
This speech causes a massive riot in Ephesus. What we see is that idols were a key component of life in pagan devotion. You don’t mess with the idol and idolatry system
Now put yourself in the shoes of the Christians of the time. Everywhere you went … pretty well every aspect of life … in one or another you had to deal with an idol. Sometimes Christians were not successful at guarding themselves against idols.